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Casteism in the US: Entrepreneurs and a new report on Indian American attitudes

19th February 2021

We continue to cover stories of the South Asian diaspora across the globe. And in America, there have been a couple of interesting articles that have come out over the last week.

As is well known, many US companies employ Indian immigrants to work in technology and, as has only recently been revealed, casteism seems to follow them. The statistics suggest that less than 2 per cent of the Indian immigrants that make up senior executives in the US are from ‘lower’ castes. At junior levels, when an employee’s caste is discovered, they may be ousted from social circles, have their work criticised where previously there were no complaints and have difficulty getting promoted. However, it seems that some have taken advantage of immigration to the US by setting themselves up as entrepreneurs, free from the hierarchy of ‘caste’, where there is the belief that business trumps all. Yet despite this, some who have reported on their success as an entrepreneur prefer not to be named, as even a surname can denote one’s caste and leave one open to criticism.

The other article of note discusses how significant the impact of Indian Americans is on government and policy. Making up the second-largest migrant population and just over 1% of the total population of the US, Vice-President Kamala Harris, whose mother is Indian, is probably the most high-profile example of Indian Americans holding a political position. Consequently, it has become increasingly important to gather information on the concerns and beliefs of South Asians.

The research was carried out by the Carnegie Endowment for National Peace, and covers a wide range of subjects. Interestingly, the issue of casteism was rated 7th most concerning in the list of top issues in India, behind Government Corruption, Economy, Religious Majoritarianism, Healthcare, China and Terrorism, but before Education, Income Inequality, Environment/Climate Change, and Sexism/Gender Discrimination. It was the first issue of concern for just 6% of Indian Americans, the second for 11% and third for 9%. The low figures perhaps reflect the proportion of so-called ‘higher’ caste members within the diaspora, to whom caste is of little relevance – as discrimination does not affect them – backed up by associating the figures for the level of support for Modi, the BJP and Hindu nationalism.

The report provides some very interesting information, but it also highlights that there is still a lot to do in terms of raising awareness of casteism amongst these US citizens.

Caste discrimination continues its journey – now within the Australian diaspora

11th February 2021

It was great news to hear that Australia, back in 2018, passed a motion to urge the government to take action on fighting caste-based discrimination. It requested that, amongst more international aims, the government considered interventions in inclusive recruitment practice and management practice in all business partners.

ABC National Radio recently broadcast a programme about caste-based discrimination amongst the South Asian diaspora in Australia. Disturbingly, there were many echoes of the forms that caste-based discrimination manifests here in the UK. As academic and filmmaker Vikrant Kishore says, ‘caste goes where South Asians go… Australia is no exception’. And while some South Asians in Australia take great pride in their ‘dominant’ caste – such as personalising their car license plates – others find the obsession with finding out people’s surnames (and thus their caste) deeply uncomfortable.

There are, of course, the typical stories that we’ve come to recognise throughout the diaspora, such as being evicted from rental apartments after their South Asian landlord found out the occupant was a Dalit, or refusing to let Dalits enter their house or eat food that they have touched. And much as with the dating app in the UK, an Australian dating app called Dil Mil allows filters to match within ‘dominant’ castes but has no options for ‘lower’ caste groups. Even in the big cities, casteist slurs can be heard.

Perhaps one of the saddest stories is that of a man from Cairns whose father-in-law passed away. They were unable to find a priest to conduct the last rites, and certainly not one that would enter the house. In the end they found someone from Adelaide who gave directions over the phone as to how to perform the ritual. Even in death, casteism shows a disturbing lack of humanity.

Yes, this was a damning report on the situation in Australia, but what should give us hope was that the documentary maker herself came from an upper middle-class Asian background and had come to the realisation that her privileged position had made her blind to the casteism that surrounded her.

Recently we at DSN-UK have been approached by and are talking to others in the UK, previously caste-blind, now making strides both to educate themselves and raise awareness. We look forward to the day when rather than denying that caste-based discrimination exists, ‘dominant’ castes accept that they have been lucky enough to avoid the suffering that Dalits have endured, accept their role in its persistence and start working towards its abolishment.

The Hindu American Foundation file against the County of Santa Clara in the Cisco case

2nd February 2021

There are some stark parallels with the actions of the Hindu American Foundation in the US and those of the Hindu lobby here in the UK, who argue that inclusion of caste as a discriminatory factor in the Equality Act 2010 is a ‘hate crime’ against Hindus!

So to hear that the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has filed to intervene in the case is deeply disturbing and indicates a lack of willingness to even discuss that caste-based discrimination exists. In amongst the wording of the case brought against Cisco, the State argues that caste is ‘a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy’. This would contravene the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of all Hindu Americans according to HAF’s Executive, Suhag Shukla, by attempting to define Hindu religious doctrine. The HAF has openly stated that they are anti-casteism, but their actions undermine the importance of the Cisco case by attempting to deflect the issue on to something else.

For those who are human rights activists, the decision by the State of California to sue tech giant Cisco for allowing caste-based discrimination to occur unchecked was a major breakthrough. It felt like there was finally some sign of responsibility taken by a government to tackle the issues of casteism imported by the South Asian diaspora, and that such behaviour would no longer go unnoticed. Most importantly of all, it was widely covered by a number of news outlets and raised awareness of the insidious nature of caste-based discrimination, and the ‘real life’ effects on individuals.

In effect, the HAF is accusing California of Hinduphobia. This, sadly, is a claim that activists have come up against repeatedly in the UK. During the Public Consultation on Caste-based Discrimination in the UK, the Hindu Forum repeatedly accused pro-legislation activists of trying to put blame on all Hindus and create a schism. It was erroneously claimed that DSN-UK was a Christian organisation (despite the fact that our Director was up for an award for Secularist of the Year) and that the concept of caste played no role in Hindu teachings. It is a moot point as to where casteism originated: the fact is that it is still taking place across the world, and our work is to end it, regardless of whether it affects or is perpetrated by Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs or Christians – or indeed those of no faith.

It is nigh on impossible to have an open discussion about casteism today – those who are anti-legislation are immediately on the defensive as soon as the subject is mentioned. The fact of the matter is that, like any discrimination, it is perpetrated by individuals; what is unacceptable is that certain institutions (whether cultural or religious) allow it to happen and then go on to paint the perpetrators as victims. Until both sides join forces to eliminate it as a cultural norm or legislation provides adequate protection for victims, progress will continue to be slow.

The Impact of the UK’s Decision to reduce Foreign Aid

12th January 2021

Much has been made recently of the UK government’s decision to reduce the Foreign Aid budget to 0.5% of gross national income from its usual level of 0.7%. While times are indeed hard due to the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic (and potentially due to get harder as a result of Brexit), this holds for nearly every country in the world at the moment. However, hardship for the UK is on a different level than hardship for countries in the developing world. We are fortunate enough to live in a place where we are both able and willing to fund our Public Borrowing. Other governments are not as well set up or lack the political desire to support those most in need.

According to the World Economic Forum, under the Principled Aid Index, the UK is the second most generous nation from the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. So what impact will this 0.2% reduction have on tackling caste-based discrimination? While it’s difficult to quantify, we can put it in perspective. The top recipient of Foreign Aid from the UK in 2019 was Pakistan, while Bangladesh lay in 6th position and India in 17th – countries where the Dalit community requires the most help.  Consequently, there is no doubt that a drop in foreign aid will mean that life will get most difficult for those most in need.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (a member of the APPG for Dalits), recently asked what assessment the government made of reports that minorities are being persecuted in India, which has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the marginalisation of the Dalit community. In response, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said that the human rights situation is continually assessed, and that in 2016-18 they funded a project in Uttar Pradesh empowering 400 Dalit human rights defenders to challenge discrimination and violence against Dalit women. It is devastating to think that projects such as these risk being cancelled because of the cut in foreign aid funding.

Previously we were among the few countries that have hit the UN’s target of 0.7%, but we are also in an exceptionally fortunate position: we have unemployment benefits for those laid off, as most workers are registered and on contracts of one sort or another, and we have a number of incredible charities that provide shelter, food banks and clothing for those most in need. Of course, it’s not perfect, but in the UK you rarely hear of people starving to death, dying because of poor sanitation or being denied access to help just because of their caste. The same cannot be said of those countries where caste-based discrimination occurs – they are the most vulnerable at the best of times, and suffer the most at the worst of times. One can only hope that the government’s reduction in Foreign Aid will be very, very temporary.

News from DSN-UK’s 2020 AGM

24th November 2020

This year’s Annual General Meeting, held on 5th November, was a bittersweet event. While DSN-UK has had lots to celebrate, it was also time to say goodbye to two significant people in the organisation.

Corinne Lennox, our Chair, was at the helm and was delighted to welcome such a large number of attendees from across the globe for our first Virtual AGM. The Annual Report & Accounts were presented by Kate Solemeyina, DSN-UK Treasurer and she was pleased to announce that for the year ending March 2020, our accounts are looking healthy, and despite the pressures that the pandemic and lockdown have caused, we have good reserves to see us through the next few months – though future funding, as always, remains a priority.

We welcomed a new trustee, voted in at this meeting. Bala Gnanapragasam has been a Labour councillor for the London borough of Lewisham, and served on a number of charitable bodies, including Change Alliance (India), Age Exchange and Christian Aid. We welcome his skills to the Board and look forward to working with him.

Meena Varma took us through the Annual Review and the highlights and challenges over the last year, and Danni Kleinaityte presented our newest campaign on ‘Everyday Casteism’.

The highlight of the event was two incredible presentations. The first came from Andrés Huesos of WaterAid discussing the ongoing issues of sanitation workers, particularly in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, and what steps need to be taken in order to change the current situation. This was followed by Bezwada Wilson from Safai Karmachari Andolan, reflecting on the 10 years since the DSN-UK campaign ‘Foul Play – End Manual Scavenging’ and the impact in India. Both presentations are available here.

On a sadder note, David Haslam has stepped down from the Board after twenty years’ service to DSN-UK. A founding member of the charity, many of the AGM’s attendees gave testament to what an inspiring figure he has been over the years, and the energy and effort he has put into supporting the cause of ending caste-based discrimination.

The second member of the team leaving us is Meena Varma, our Director, who has seen the charity through significant changes. Danni prepared a wonderful tribute in the form of a video to celebrate the highlights of Meena’s time with us, and honorary chair Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech in which he praised both her dedication and determination to change things. Several other members also added their thanks to her, and we wish her the best in her role as Executive Director at the International Dalit Solidarity Network.

Our thanks go out to the Board, our special guests and all the attendees for a highly successful event.

Director of DSN-UK to step down to lead global network

26th October 2020

Dalit Solidarity Network UK are sad to announce the departure of our Director, Meena Varma, who has been at the helm of our organisation for over 13 years. As some of you will know, she has been working full-time for both DSN-UK and our sister organisation, the International Dalit Solidarity Network, for the last few years, dedicating a huge amount of her time to keeping both charities running effectively. She has now decided that it is time to focus her efforts on IDSN and ensure that the issues of caste-based discrimination are kept on the agenda on the global stage. Under her directorship she has played a significant role in trying to implement legislative change to the Equality Act 2010, assisted in setting up the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits, and run a number of incredibly successful campaigns that have raised awareness throughout the UK. Her expertise has been called upon by numerous parliamentarians, journalists and activists, and her wealth of knowledge, unflagging energy and absolute passion for justice will be sorely missed. We wish her the very best of luck for the future.

Our Chair, Dr Corinne Lennox, has written a note about Meena and her contributions, which you will find below.

Launch of DSN-UK Report Everyday Casteism campaign

19th October 2020

Today DSN-UK is launching our ‘Report Everyday Casteism’ campaign to collect evidence of caste-based discrimination and casteist hate speech in the UK experienced by non-dominant caste people. Our dedicated webpage has a succinct reporting form with an option to remain anonymous. Everyone who has faced casteist behaviour in the UK is encouraged to submit incidents that might be serious or negligible, very offensive or so minor and normalised that you do not even give it much thought or feel the need to protest.

DSN-UK together with other like-minded organisations in the UK campaigned to include caste in the Equality Act 2010. However, after the public consultation on caste, the UK government announced its decision to repeal the duty in the Equality Act 2010 to make caste an explicit aspect of race discrimination. Since then, MP Bob Blackman has been pushing to ensure this is done as soon as possible.

We have often faced the challenge of providing enough concrete evidence on how widespread the issue of caste-based discrimination is in the UK. At the last DSN-UK Annual General Meeting suggestions were made of looking at the possibility of collecting everyday casteist incidents that may not reach courts or mass media attention. A catalogue of reported casteist incidents will strengthen our campaign by allowing us to illustrate how casteist behaviour manifests in the UK and what type of legislative or policy protections are needed to protect the victims and prevent such incidents in the future.

Report Everyday Casteism in the UK now and encourage others to do the same.

Californian case of caste-based discrimination re-awakens the need for specific legislation in the West

28th July 2020

For those who doubt the existence of caste-based discrimination among the South Asian diaspora, a case in America has revealed just how insidious it is.

California regulators have decided to sue Cisco Systems over alleged caste discrimination perpetrated by two Indian-American employees against a third. Whilst US employment law doesn’t include caste discrimination, The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has filed a lawsuit against the tech company, claiming that they did not act on the victim’s report of harassment. Cisco have argued that caste discrimination is not illegal, but perhaps this might encourage a landmark ruling, much like that of Tirkey v. Chandhok in the UK (which was the first piece of case law on caste-based discrimination), to press for changes to the law. At the moment, the DFEH will sue for violations to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (arguing that Dalits’ darker skin represents colour discrimination) and to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (which argues that as caste discrimination is primarily a Hindu practice, it is covered under religious discrimination).

The case involves two Cisco supervisors, both ‘so called higher-caste’ Indians. The first supervisor ‘outed’ one of the employees as a Dalit and told colleagues that he attended the Indian Institute of Technology through affirmative action (reservation). When the victim contacted the HR department wanting to file a discrimination complaint, the supervisor, in effect, demoted the claimant. Furthermore, the supervisor went on to disparage this employee to his co-workers and suggested that they avoid him, leaving him isolated. Then, having stepped down from his role, the supervisor’s replacement ‘continued to discriminate, harass and retaliate’ the employee, and gave him assignments that were impossible to complete. Consequently, he was forced to receive less pay and fewer opportunities.

The Californian government have been brave in making this move: it has demonstrated how serious it is about discrimination in the work place, and sends a clear message to the Indian diaspora that caste discrimination can’t be hidden behind religious or ethnic discrimination.

The US-based Ambedkar International Center (AIC) has written to the DFEH, explaining that this case is just ‘a tip of the iceberg’. In India, Dalits make up approximately 16% of the population, but as the AIC state: ‘After surviving through mental and physical agony, less than 2% [of] untouchables rise to level to get an opportunity to come to the US. These 2% [of] migrant Indians are very talented, hardworking and sharp techies, majorly from the top institutions of India.’

However, the press that the Cisco debacle has created has had some positive effects: ‘We have people from 30 companies reaching out and more folks are coming on board as they try to move their companies to address this issue proactively, given how large the scope and the scale of the problem is,’ said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs in the US. In the absence of legislation at this particular moment in time, perhaps the onus should be on encouraging companies to include caste in their inclusion and diversity policies, so that at least employees are aware of what is considered unacceptable behaviour.

DSN-UK director Meena Varma commented on the case in, stating that ‘In countries like the UK and the US, anti-caste laws are necessary because we cannot change a casteist mindset overnight, but we can we can try and change casteist behaviour … people will have to follow the rule of law. That’s why there needs to be legislative protection in these countries.’

The question is how this case can also encourage change in the UK. Several cases have been brought to the courts, but because of the nature of our legal system, a number have been dropped due to the high costs involved, or because a settlement has been reached before the case could be concluded, or the case has been dismissed because there is no clear legislation on caste-based discrimination and so must be tried using different parameters such as racial discrimination, which do not address the unique issue of caste. If there were a body of successfully tried cases from countries with South Asian diaspora, governments might finally recognise the existence of caste-based discrimination and adopt a more accepting attitude towards making statutory changes. We are unlikely to be fortunate enough to have a local government body that takes action as the State of California has, but it would be a significant win if we did.

Despite legal protection in India against caste discrimination, Dalits still have difficulty in entering the higher echelons of power. Thus emigration to the West is seen as an opportunity to succeed on a level playing field, where caste should, supposedly, be irrelevant. The mindset of superiority from a minority of dominant caste diaspora has no place in the US or the UK, however it appears that only specific legislation against caste-based discrimination will give Dalits the global protection that they need on the scale that they need.

DfID and FCO to be merged

9th July 2020

On 16 June Boris Johnson announced that the Department for International Development (DfID) will be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), under the rebranded department name of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. Due to be formally established in September, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will head up the new department while International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan will remain only until the merger is completed.

Why does this matter?

Well, let’s start with the fact that no consultation was made with the UK’s international development and humanitarian sector, who firmly believe that DfID is the most transparent and effective way for spending Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the benefit of the poorest. If that wasn’t quite enough, the government have ignored the recommendations of independent aid scrutiny bodies, including the International Development Select Committee. While DfID has an excellent reputation as an independent body that uses its expertise to make significant improvements globally (including on education, health, social services, environmental protection, sanitation and most recently assisting in dealing with the current Covid-19 pandemic), the FCO has been criticised for using UK aid to advance security and diplomatic interests, rather than directing it to reduce poverty. And herein lies the problem: transparency. In the 2018 Aid Transparency Index, DfID received a ‘very good’ rating of 90.6, whilst the FCO received a ‘poor’ rating of just 34.3. This year’s figures have kept DfID as ‘very good’, coming 9th out of 47 organisations; in contrast, the FCO, although lifted to ‘fair’, comes out in 38th position

The government has argued that the UK’s aid policy is too detached from its foreign policy and that the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid has left DfID with a budget five times that of the FCO. Furthermore, the PM believes that the money should be spent more strategically to protect British values from overseas threats and prevent funding being given to potentially corrupt countries. On the other side of the argument, there is concern (including from MPs on all sides of the political spectrum) that the more political FCO will have a negative effect on the specific poverty reduction goals and work on the ground that DfID so successfully achieves, by diverting resources to support British interests based on political strategy.

Having worked with DfID for many years, DSN-UK is extremely concerned by the change. They have been champions in addressing social exclusion and the rights of the poorest minorities, notably in India, and have been open to allowing input from us and other NGOs. In 2005 we pressed the department to include caste discrimination in their programme on Social Exclusion, particularly in regard to Nepal and India, and were delighted that joint initiatives with the World Bank ensured support for Dalit NGOs. More recently, in 2016, we made a joint submission with the Asia Dalit Rights

Forum to have ensure that the issue of caste-based discrimination was included in their Sustainable Development Goals. Our relationship with DfID has allowed us to make a genuine difference to the lives of Dalits.

Taking the opportunity during the 22 June House of Lords question time on Covid-19 and supply chains, Baroness Northover, asked a particularly pertinent question: ‘My Lords, with the downgrading of DfID, how do the Government now plan to enhance the rights of the many vulnerable women and girls working in supply chains, or the Dalits of both sexes in south Asia?’ Disappointingly, the only reply was that the department was not being downgraded. DSN-UK is proud to have put its name to a statement released by BOND and signed by 191 organisations, which clearly states our objection to this merger. We believe that DfID’s independence is crucial and that the UK is at risk of losing our internationally renowned position on overseas aid and consequently our ability to bring our influence to bear on the most pressing matters that the global community faces.

UK’s Largest Indian Dating Website removes Question on Skin Tone

23rd June 2020

We reported in our spring newsletter that an Asian dating website was responsible by means of an algorithm to exclude Scheduled Castes (Dalits) from certain matches., a marriage site for the Indian community in the UK, the US and elsewhere, is back in the headlines again.

Originally, subscribers to the website were asked how dark or light their skin tone was – it is commonly believed that a darker skin tone denotes a lower caste and that lighter skin tones are more desirable. Following the Black Lives Matter movement, a subscriber from the US started a petition to remove the colour filter from the website, and after garnering more than 1500 signatures in just 14 hours, decided to remove it.

While this is a victory, it is disturbing that several subscribers have reported that previously they were rejected by potential matches, based on their skin tone. Although the severity of caste discrimination suffered amongst the Diaspora in the west is milder in comparison to those in South Asia, there is obviously much that still has to be done to tackle both conscious and unconscious bias.

On the website, it is still possible to search for partners by caste, and while many members in the UK add that caste is no bar to finding a suitable partner, not all of them do. For those who refuse to put their caste down, we do not know whether this is embarrassment or concern over not finding someone should they mention that they are a member of a Scheduled Caste, or whether it is because caste is genuinely not an issue that concerns them when looking for a spouse.

Whether we like it or not, caste remains an identifier for some in the diaspora – and skin tone just another method of making a judgement.